As a total geek about Earth’s historical Bronze Age, when I heard about Mythic Babylon‘s launch back in 2021 I knew I’d want to pick it up. The book’s languished on my kink shelf, but it finally reached the top of my reading stack.
Published by Design Mechanism for their D100 system Mythras, Mythic Babylon provides a comprehensive point of entry for those interested in playing Mesopotamian campaigns during the reign of Hammurabi. Although you’ll need a copy of their core rules to play Mythic Babylon, the book should be pretty usable with your choice of system.
My own experience of Mythic Babylon was firmly as an armchair read; I haven’t had an opportunity to take it for a test drive.
The immediate sense I got when I started reading is that Mythic Babylon is focused on setting. Opening with a hundred pages on life in the cities of Sumer & Akkad, agriculture, economics, religion, and culture, and littered with sidebars quoting ancient texts—such as the famous Code of Hammurabi—it’s crystal clear that Mythic Babylon‘s objective is to evoke its setting for the reader. While it is a game, and does have “gaming” content, it feels clear to me that the authors’ passion was for describing the ancient world.
And they do so phenomenally well. I read a lot of history, and honestly this is one of the better survey texts I’ve read on the period. In particular I love how—because Mythic Babylon is a game—the book really puts into context all the different places and cultural customs and historical figures, and how they’re interacting. Most histories divide up the material to focus in greater detail on particular aspects. For example, my Routledge survey text on the Sumerians is deliciously detailed, but is so precise (or alternately unwilling to commit, a reasonable rhetorical stance in academia) that it’s hard to get a holistic picture. In contrast Mythic Babylon provides immediate details about a number of places and people because, well, you need to know what the hell’s going on if you’re gonna play a game!
As an aside, the Routledge text on the Babylonians is also really good, if you want a deeper historical dive.
Overall the prose is a little dry, when compared to the gaming field, but it’s downright poetic compared to most modern histories. It might have been appropriate to add a bit more “pizazz” when discussing the magic in the setting, because the fantastical does get overshadowed by the historical.
In a similar vein, at times I felt like the gameplay elements seemed to play second fiddle to the setting. This might also come down to a Mythras stylistic choice, as I’ve found other campaign settings for Mythras (such as Shores of Korantia) a bit dry. There’s also a personal element, because I am someone who likes big splashy overt magic, and Mythic Babylon feels more “low” fantasy. There is overt magic wielded by priests and sorcerers, but the general feel is more subdued, more subtle. It does so to focus on a historical experience with a dash of magic, and I can’t help but wonder how the game would feel playing “the myths of the Babylonians” in comparison to “the world as the Babylonians believed it.” A bit more organization or structure to the magic—specialization based on deity, or city—could have been interesting, too.
I do really like the setting’s emphasis on divination, and on the Purity skill. This is a D100 rating which describes a character’s relation to the divine order, and impacts your ability to wield magic, be socially accepted, and so on. For example, if you’re under 40%, you need to roll Willpower if you want to enter a temple. Hit 0%, and you turn into a demon—effectively, an alternate method of character death. Because of how vivid the setting is, Purity is one of the more effective “morality” mechanics I’ve seen in a game. It looks to impact player behavior quite strongly, providing firm reasons to make choices in-character as an ancient Akkadian.
The last third of the book is more gamemaster-facing, with the geography of Mesopotamia, a bestiary, and tools for running campaigns in Mythic Babylon.
Like the setting, the geography’s a little dry, but generally well-written. Here, the dryness came from repetition, consuming the foreign names of several temples and local divinities with each city described in the gazetteer. Maps are also provided of many cities, although these are often only partially useful. The mapping style is archaeological. It highlights a few specific places which have been excavated, with detail a bit too small to see well.
In contrast the gazetteer entries are often quite good, with both overt plot seeds, and noted conflicts between cities or individuals which could bedevil players. And again, this is a place where the authors’ breadth of knowledge shines. They could have just written up Sumer & Akkad, but instead we have Elam and the Levant, and mentions of further afield both up north and south into the Persian Gulf. It really brings a picture together of the whole Mesopotamian region, and its neighbors, for adventure.
I like the bestiary’s diversity of monsters, but I couldn’t help but feel that some seemed a little too easily killable. Of course, I don’t know Mythras well, and I’m comparing them to RuneQuest’s gonzo fantasy monsters with 10-20 points of armor, so there’s every chance I just don’t have the tools to evaluate this part of the book.
The gamemaster’s chapters are solid, and provide real advice and interesting ideas for both campaigns and scenarios. The authors make sure to remind the gamemaster to “start small” (important with any unusual setting), and the plethora of scenario ideas provides good support for introducing cultural elements piecemeal. For example, having an adventure during ilkum duty, and then another introducing the city’s assembly needing help negotiating with the king.
Mythic Babylon is modestly illustrated with black & white drawings of varying quality. I wouldn’t say any are atrocious, but there’s not many which felt spectacular, either. I do quite like that most are captioned, to help with reader clarity. The illustrations successfully bring the setting to life, and help give an idea of what the world looks and feels like. They didn’t “wow” me, but they did their job.
The cover, though, is awesome. In hindsight, I think the cover did impact my expectation for “big, over-the-top mythic action” in the text.
Can you blame me?
That said… there’s no color interior illustrations, but the book’s interiors and graphic design are still in color. With the cost of illustration in a book this size black and white absolutely makes sense—I ain’t knocking the choice of art—but surely it would have been better to create the book in black & white instead? Looking at DriveThruRPG’s storefront, it kind of baffles me that there’s a premium color edition. Like… why? There’s no illustrations in the book that call for it, that I saw. Just a bit of graphic design.
For me, Mythic Babylon was solidly an armchair book. It’s not likely I’ll ever get to play it directly with a group, and that’s OK. I certainly feel there’s lots of ideas I can mine from this, plus I do just love the period. I definitely feel I got my money’s worth, as a customer.
That said, I think it’s worth asking myself if I feel confident about my ability to bring Mythic Babylon to the table, as a gamemaster.
While I don’t feel “confident,” I also don’t feel “apprehensive.” I think it would be a bit tricky to bring as a new setting, but there are pretty good tools in the book. A starter adventure—not in this book, it’s already super long—somewhere would be helpful, probably. Getting an idea of how the authors “expect” a game to go. Alternatively, maybe focusing on one corner of the setting as “home” would have helped. The authors recommend starting small, but many of the central powers and places have similar levels of detail.
Overall, it’s a pretty good book. I do think that if you’re interested in games set in ancient Babylon with any system, you should pick this up. It’s a great book for history geeks, and a really solid introduction to the topic. The setting material is pretty system-agnostic, giving gamemasters interested in non-Mythras (or even non-D100) games still plenty of reason to use Mythic Babylon.
This review was originally published on my website, akhelas.com.